KAT VINTER speaks with Danish pop sensation ASBJØRN about collaboration, the dangers of living in Berlin and closing the gap between art and business.
KAT VINTER: As an artist and a songwriter myself I always like to open a discussion about collaboration, because there is this popular myth or idea about the solitary creative genius. I know you do write and produce a lot on your own, but there’s so many other elements to being a musician, such as representing yourself visually. How important is collaboration in the creation of your art?
ASBJØRN: For me, whenever I’m gathering inspiration or stories one of the most important things is to be surrounded by people. I mean you don’t experience anything without people, and you don’t have anything to write about without people. But then in terms of writing the music, that is very much a loner thing for me. I’ve had a few writing sessions where very important people have told me that I needed to make this killer ‘hit single,’ and so hooked me up with cool producers and songwriters. Sure we made a great pop song, and an effective pop song with all the right elements but I guess in the end I was just super sad.
KV: That particular kind of collaboration wasn’t for you at the end of the day?
A: Until the right collaborator comes along, I think that’s the thing I enjoy doing very much by myself because in all other parts of my artistry I am super dependent on other people. When I play, I want the music to sound alive so I’m dependent on my band. In terms of production, I don’t want to do it entirely by myself because I think involving people helps to achieve a creativity and playfulness. Collaboration also allows you to push yourself.
Pop music to me is the most powerful thing of all because it has the power to gather so many people around something that is universal and hopefully that is also human and beautiful…
KV: So why is Berlin a good city for you to be right now?
A: I wasn’t 100% sure about Berlin when I moved here but I just know when touring Germany, which I did a lot after my first record, I always stayed a couple of days in Berlin and it felt like a place a could really live and be super focused. One of the greatest things about Berlin to me is that destruction is always around the corner. If you want you can totally fuck yourself up. A lot people come here with all these plans and ambitions and 6 months later nothing has happened. That’s really scary and in a way keeps me really motivated. When I’m not working though, I have the choice to totally lose control.
KV: I think one mark of being a true artist is to be prolific. To me your creative output is really impressive, there seems to be so much energy coming from you in terms of how many music videos and how much music you’ve released. How do you stay inspired to create?
A: By doing things the way I have, I’ve been able to avoid feeling empty and drained like you do if you’ve only spent two years in a studio bubble. I think there will always be a natural emptiness and vacuum after a creative process like that. I think I definitely kept the energy going for a long time and kept inspired probably because I had all these different elements happening at once. One week I was in the studio bubble then the next week I was making videos, and the next touring, and that really did affect the final product and production because it became influenced by audience reactions and the visual elements I was working on.
KV: I wanted to ask you what it’s like releasing your music on your own label, there are obvious advantages and struggles. What have you learnt about doing it yourself and going your own route?
A: There are a lot of good things because when I started I talked to a lot of labels and cool people that wanted to get involved, but all of them wanted to make my music a bit more straight pop and computerised, and it just didn’t feel right so I was very clear from the start that it’s not what I wanted. It feels so much better when everything is on your own terms. The struggles are that you need to be extremely coordinated and structured.
KV: You have to have half a brain in the business world at all times?
A: Exactly, and it’s always easier to be in the business world. You need to this, and this, and this, like a list.. and you always tend to do this before you get to the creative part. I try to take two hours each day in the morning to do business and the rest of the day is for being creative. It’s important that I then log off from social media and email.
KV: I think a lot of artist miss this skill to manage themselves… I often feel that if we all had a few more skills in that world we may not be as easily exploited by people in the music biz. You must have learned a lot doing things this way.
A: Certainly but it can also be really destructive. You know yourself what it’s like to write all the blogs yourself and try to be an entrepreneur with your own music… in an ideal world that line in the industry between art and business would be more blurry and the two would be closer to each other. Sometimes when you throw yourself into the business side you end up wishing that the conversation was still about music. If musicians are trying to be more businessy then the business guys should also take a couple hours each just day to feel.
KV: I agree, if you work with people that are just staring at a spreadsheet it can be a bit depressing. Tell us a bit about your new release:
A: Always a tricky question! I claim that I make pop music which inevitably has a wall of references… but pop music to me is the most powerful thing of all because it has the power to gather so many people around something that is universal and hopefully that is also human and beautiful. So basically what I want to do with my kind of pop music is really not be afraid of exposing the human aspect. It’s an intimate kind of pop music I do, you can hear the breaths and the hands that are working, the desperation and the chaos that results from really putting your heart into something. This record I feel like I really managed to write a bunch of honest pop songs that were strong enough in the pop essence to allow myself to get really freaky on the production side.
KV: I think you’ve built up a sound that is uniquely identifiably you, which is one of the biggest challenges as an artist. If we’re going to go through the top 10 artists of the charts we’re likely to find that 6 of them have been “Max Martinified.”
A: True, although honestly I have recently had a huge boy band revival.
(we both break into some Backstreet Boys in Asbjørns kitchen…)
KV: I’ve had this conversation with songwriters but where do you stand on the streaming debate. Songwriters are saying they aren’t getting fair pay, on the other hand streaming is the future and allows artists to make their music available to everyone.
A: As a consumer I’m really happy. As an artist actually I’m really happy too because I feel like I’m not just yelling into the void….
KV: You feel like you’re able to leave a digital footprint?
A: Yeah im not really sure, it’s one of the topics that doesn’t really fit into my two business worry hours a day. We can’t really stop streaming and I think there’s creative benefits from streaming, which is what I worry about the most. Money is so far down the list. I can’t divide myself into artist and songwriter. If I’m making a song I’m really proud of the recognition is the most important thing. For sure there are a lot of layers to it but I basically don’t care right now, I just want to make music and I want people to hear it and I’m living… so apparently my life is not dependent on streaming but my creative happiness is because my music is being shared. How do you feel about it?
KV: I’m with you in that I love that I can put my music on Soundcloud and have it be heard. I don’t think streaming is the enemy I think it’s the specific deals made between streaming services and major labels… songwriters and independent publishers weren’t invited to that conversation. So the deals weren’t transparent and not really fair for music creators. It’s a complicated situation but I have faith that it’s going to eventually be rectified. The voices are growing louder.
Where in your wildest dreams does Asbjørn the artist end up?
A: (Laughs) Could you answer that Kat?
KV: Sure… Thom Yorke would ask me for a duet and Bjork would take me as support on a world tour.
A: I think I tend not to think too much about that, doing what I do right now is growing so naturally, even though it is also frustrating. I don’t think that things will get easier when I get on that support tour with Madonna or have that duet with Lykkie Li…
KV: I would really love to hear that though.
A: Me too, but I think my dream is very much more about how I’m feeling while doing this and of course that is influenced by recognition and the possibilities I can get from that recognition. I think I wouldn’t want to go on that tour with Madonna if I didn’t feel like I was making great music and if I didn’t feel like I was living a well balanced internal life where I actually feel like music is the drive.
The time that I felt the best in my entire career, was when I released the video for “The Love You Have In You.”
That was the first song I actually put gender on and a lot of people wanted me to be homo-political but actually I’m not at all. For me it’s a universal love song but from a personal point of view. What made me most happy was that all of the responses I got were so varied, sure there were guys and girls having the courage to come out of the closet, but I also got a message from a guy who had the courage to tell a girl from his class that he was in love with her. I want to write universal pop songs that actually really get under peoples skin.
You can download Asbjørn’s new album Psuedo Visions from his online shop.